Why Bother to Think About Evil?
by Tony Windross
Razor is a very handy piece of equipment, particularly for the
theological liberal. Its name comes from William of Ockham in Surrey, a
14th century philosopher, who formulated the maxim that "entities should
not be multiplied beyond necessity".
This amounts to saying that the fewer assumptions we make when trying to
make sense of the world, the better - and the Razor can be thought of as
something that cuts away all the unnecessary assumptions.
One of the things we should not make too many assumptions about is the
idea of evil.
There's plenty of it around, of course, with the newspapers being full
of stories of people being wickedly cruel to one another. There may be
disputes about particular cases, but in general terms we've got a pretty
clear picture of what counts as evil
Things become tricky, however, when people start to
talk about the existence of evil
"existence" is itself
a pretty tricky concept. Things
"exist" in different ways: numbers,
tables, courage and God each have a different sort of ontological
reality (or way of being). It would be stupid to try and lump them all
Institutionalised evil comes in all sorts of
guises: Hitler's Germany, Stalin's Russia, Pol Pot's Cambodia, Amin's
Uganda, Verwoerd's South Africa. Whatever monsters may have been in
charge, each of these systems depended on ordinary, decent people to
keep it all working.
This suggests that many (perhaps most? maybe even
all?) ordinary, decent people have the potential for evil, if the
circumstances are propitious. This is what
"Original Sin" means. But the
term is unfortunate and unhelpful to the extent that it implies that our
capacity to behave in dreadful ways is more central to the human
condition than the capacity to behave generously and lovingly.
Evil is what can happen when normal social and
psychological restraints are removed, because it is then that the
darkest and cruellest aspects of the human personality can be unleashed.
There is no need to think of evil forces being abroad, out there
in the world: there are more than enough within ourselves to be going on
But because this is a
many think of evil as something
"other", rather than simply part of the
normal human condition. And in the same way that lots of people find it
comforting to pass the responsibility for their lives to an all-powerful
deity, many also find it helpful to project all the dark forces within
themselves onto an external
"devil". This is particularly the case with
those who are deeply disturbed, or fundamentalists or both.
The Holocaust of Nazi Germany during the second
World War was a turning-point in the way that many people thought about
God. After Auschwitz and other concentration camps it was widely held
that belief in an omnipotent, loving God was no longer possible. How
such a God have watched and not acted?
The attempt to show how belief is still an option
in such circumstances is called
"theodicy in theological parlance.
There are many strands to it, one of the key ones focusing on the idea
of human free-will. Much of the suffering in the world is due not to
"acts of God (plagues, famines, earthquakes and
so on) but to deliberate human intent (wars, ethnic cleansing and the
It is said that because we are free to choose how
to behave, given that we are surrounded by temptations of all sorts (and
given further that temptation, by definition, is only ever to do what we
know to be wrong: it makes little sense to say that I was tempted last
Thursday to be kind) there are likely to be many occasions when people
choose to behave in ways that are morally very wrong. If the
consequences of such actions are sufficiently awful (the result perhaps
of a lack of a sense of morality, or a condition of insanity) they might
be said to be
"evil", and the term may also be used of those who carried
The suggestion that we alone are responsible for
our actions, and that God shouln't get any of the blame is met by the
observation that people behave as they do, because they are as they are:
and it's God who has made them like that. Would it have been possible
for such a God to create human beings who had free-will (itself a very
tricky notion) but who always employed it to choose courses of action
that resulted in pleasure not pain? But perhaps a world without evil
would also be a world without good, because unless there were bad
alternatives, there couldn�t be good alternatives?
If so, it means that moral choice depends on the
existence of unpleasant consequences. Therefore a perfectly good world
(or a heaven?) could not be in any sense a moral world.
As with all arguments, where you end up depends
where you start from. The people who are desperate to preserve their
faith intact may, by judicious selection of premises, manage to do so.
Those for whom faith is impossible may well find their view reinforced
as a result of the premises that they (unconsciously) adopt.
Once again it shows that assumptions (technically
"premises") are everything. There is no perspective-less
"view-from-nowhere", and we need to be open (with ourselves
as much as anyone) about how a great deal of theology is a matter of
trying to find reasons to continue thinking in the way that we already
do, rather than trying to advance our understanding of things.
A lot of theology is concerned with trying to deal
with obstacles to faith. If someone finds lots of things standing in the
way, and if they really do want to be able to engage with
religion, they may be prepared to put in the time and effort necessary.
People for whom such obstacles don't exist, or who
don't have any interest in religion, may well do no theological thinking
whatsoever. The problem of evil constitutes just such an obstacle for
many people, but only because God is usually thought of as an
independent being who is both all good and all powerful. Remove any of
those three assumptions and the problem disappears - but so does the God
of conventional Christianity.
And although the problem of evil raises all sorts
of difficulties, and although the use of Ockham's Razor provides a means
of dealing with it, the way that it also cuts away at the
theistic concept of God is likely to be seen as so deeply threatening
that many people may do the equivalent of pulling the bedclothes up over
their heads to make it all go away.
 Ed: But see
Evil: Inside Human Violence and Cruelty